The terrorizing nightmare retreated into the recesses of his mind as he awoke with a start. The phone by his bedside was ringing and had mercifully brought him back to the world of the living. He reflexively looked at the other side of the bed, but he knew, as he had known for the last ten years, that Mary Alice wasn’t there. She wasn’t there to offer him refuge from the demonic nightmares that were indelibly etched into his psyche. It had been 52 years since that hellish time in 1943 when, as a young Marine his life had been irrevocably changed at a far-away beach on a bleak Pacific atoll called Tarawa.
The phone was still ringing as if it was insistent that he pick it up and answer it; he hated answering the phone, but the caller ID told him it was his son.
A nervous voice registered through the handset. “Hi Dad. Good morning. How ya doing?”
“How do you expect me to be? You woke me up.”
There was a few seconds of silence on the handset as if his son was not certain on how to proceed. “Listen dad. Look, it’s the 4th of July and—well—Marcia and I thought it might be nice if you could come with us to the celebration at Monroe Park. We thought it’d be nice if Dani could see her Grandpa. After all, she doesn’t get to see you all that often.”
He stiffened a little. “It’s the fourth? Really? I’d forgotten. The days kinda run into each other. I don’t know about going.”
He was lying. He knew that today was the fourth and he knew that it meant the annual fireworks celebration at the park. He also remembered the numerous times he, Mary Alice, and his son had gone to those celebrations. But those celebrations also brought a deep darkness to his soul. He remembered the insidious fright and nervousness he felt when the fireworks show started. The booming reports and the flashing lights always conspired to open the vault of his memory and prodded him to relive that terrible day at Beach Red One on Tarawa, his Squad’s assigned landing zone. Each year on the fourth, he strove mightily to mask his terror and appear to others as a happy family man who took pleasure in celebrating that good old American holiday with his family.
The nervous voice in the handset returned and shook him out of his reverie. “Dad! Hey look if you don’t want to go it’s okay. But look ever since—well—ever since Mom passed away you’ve sort of cooped yourself up and....”
“And what!? You’re a fine one to talk. You were gone for ten years, and I hardly heard from you.” His grip on the handset was notably tighter, his forehead tense.
His son had been gone for ten years; a result of his company having sent him to Japan to run their Far East division. That’s where Dani had been born.
“Dad, look, if you hadn’t been so moody and dark tempered we would’ve gotten along a lot better, but it seems every time we called from Japan we always had an argument. Jeez Dad ever since mom died you’ve become a bitter old man.”
“Damn! I shouldn’t have said that”, his son thought as he struggled with his emotions knowing it was too late to hold his tongue. “But it’s true. Ever since she died, he’s become tough to deal with.”
The voice in the handset sounded tired and beaten. “Look Dad, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to call to argue. I just wanted to invite you to go with us to Monroe Park. Dani would really like to see you.”
He rubbed his forehead trying to hold back the headache this conversation was starting to cause. He reflexively looked back again at the bed, where she used to sleep and as he did the voice in the handset faded. The whole world faded.
He was shaking so badly his teeth were chattering. He had heard of people being so scared that their teeth would shatter, but he had never believed that, until now. He wondered if his friends in the squad were as scared as he was or if they were even still alive. Never mind that. He’d made it to the beach and to the low seawall of coconut logs and packed sand that, for now, offered him and several thousand Marines meager protection. As he hunkered against the gritty sand and the coconut logs that separated him by just a few feet from the Japanese defenders, he recalled the hellish trek to the beach. The landing craft had failed to crest the reef that ringed the island, so they tumbled out and began a 700-yard trek in waist deep water towards the beach. Jap machine guns scythed down Marines by the handful. Artillery blasted away at them and blew men apart, their body parts flying through the air.
Clenching his eyes shut and trying to shut out the whine of bullets he spoke to himself, “this can’t be real.” Sensing the futility of the situation he added, “What I am I doing here?”
He noticed Johnson, one of his squad buddies, over on his right, and over the din of explosions he yelled, “hey Johnson, have you seen Freddy and Tom? Who else made it?”
Johnson the easy going Texan was lying flat on his stomach with his face buried as much as possible in the black gritty beach sand. When he spoke his voice sounded as if he was talking through a pillow, but it was the beach sand, “Freddy and Tom made it. I saw them over to your left about 50 yards down.”
“How about McConnell? Have you seen him? ” McConnell was a happy go lucky family man who’d been drafted at the ripe old age of twenty-six. He had gotten along with McConnell and as luck would have it McConnell had actually grown up in a small town just a little north of his hometown; they were practically cousins, so to speak.
Johnson broke in, “Nope, I think he got pinned down at the water’s edge. Man I’m so scared. I’m gonna hate to have to go over this wall. God only knows how close the Japs are.
Johnson continued, “hey! I’m gonna crawl over and get in the same hole with Freddy and Tom. I hate being alone here. C’mon with me.”
He didn’t want to move with Johnson. He wanted to stay right where he was until someone who was paid to make decisions came along. “Naw. I ain’t moving. You better stay put. The Lieutenant should be here soon and tell us what the game plan is.”
Johnson rolled his head and faced him while holding his hand hard down on the top of his helmet, “He’s probably dead. Screw it! I’m going over to Freddy and Tom.”
With that, Johnson inched and crawled toward Freddy and Tom’s hole and as he passed by he winked at him. After a minute— or so it seemed that way to him—he looked over and saw all three now hunkered down in the hole. They looked like young pups furiously trying to crowd each other out from a space that was all too small for them. Freddy gave him a slight wave and then with a sudden flash followed by a thunderous roar they were gone. He reeled back from the explosion, and through the dusty haze, he realized they had taken a direct hit. At first, it didn’t register with him. They were there one instant and in another instant they were gone. Just like that. He stared hard at the hole thinking that if he did so long enough they would simply just reappear. They didn’t. A wave of nausea hit him and his body shook with a ferocity he had never experienced. His friends were gone, dead, killed. “Damn!” They’d been together since high school, signed up on the buddy system, trained together. “Damn!”
But there was no time to grieve because more shells began raining down on them—they were sitting ducks. “What’s happening?”, he repeated to himself over and over. The landing had gone all wrong. Units had missed their assigned landing zone. Many officers and noncoms had been killed wading toward the beach or killed instantly the moment they stepped off the boats that had made it to the beach.
Worst of all, the massive pre-landing American bombardment had hardly dented the Jap defenses. The Japs were very much alive and ready to defend the island. Such was the case for the beleaguered Marines on Beach Red One.
On into the night the shells fell. The explosions freakishly lighted the sky with flashes of red and orange mixed with pure white. With each explosion, he could see the ghoulish silhouettes of mangled equipment and mangled bodies on the beach behind him, a macabre death scene. Though he knew there were hundreds of other Marines pinned down on the same beach, he felt utterly alone and helpless.
Deep into the night the bombardment suddenly stopped.
Hearing which had been dulled by countless explosions slowly returned to those still left alive, and they could all hear a steadily rising sound of groans and cries for help from the wounded on the beach. Through that noise he picked up the slight soft and checkered sound of a harmonica just near the water’s edge about 60 feet behind him. It wasn’t music, it was just a note played here and there, softly but repeatedly as if someone was saying, “here I am.”
He knew McConnell always carried a harmonica. He’d spent many an evening listening to McConnell play that harmonica. He had spent countless hours listening to McConnell play his harmonica during the slow and anxious filled cruise across the Pacific on the troop transport. While other Marines engaged in card playing or drank cheap alcohol smuggled in their packs, he found diversionary solace in McConnell’s impromptu harmonica “concerts”.
“I should try to go and see if it’s McConnell.”Although, his mind was willing, his tired and fear soaked body seemed to refuse to budge. Still his mind kept prodding him and he was ashamed at his own answers,“What if there are snipers just waiting to get a glimpse of something moving. What if it isn’t McConnell? What if I am just hearing things? What’s the matter with me? There’s definitely someone out there and it shouldn’t matter who it is. He’s a fellow Marine.”
The urge to stay put and to stay safe was overwhelming but with great reluctance, he began to crawl toward the sound at the water’s edge. After a few tense minutes of crawling over to the waterline, he came upon a Marine half submerged in water and lying on his back holding something silvery in his hand. It WAS McConnell. He was badly wounded. He knew this because he could feel the slippery wetness of blood all over McConnell’s torso. By clumsy feel he managed to sprinkle sulfa powder and apply two bandages to the area where he thought McConnell had been wounded and then he dragged him slowly from the waterline back to the seawall. God was he heavy! All the time he kept waiting for a sniper bullet to snuff out his life. Once at the seawall he cradled McConnell close to him and whispered in his ear,
“Hey McConnell, it’s me. You’re safe now, it’s gonna be alright.”
He felt as if he was lying to McConnell for he really didn’t know if things were going to be alright for anyone on that beach. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. Nevertheless, he continued to cradle McConnell for the rest of the night hoping that somehow his friend was finding some measure of reassurance.
The harmonica was no longer in McConnell’s hand.
At the first light of dawn a group of haggard looking medics came across them and saw he had a wounded but still alive Marine. While the medics worked on his friend, and as if on cue, the Marines at the seawall rose as one body and began firing into the Jap positions and as happened many years before during World War One, they went “over the top”.
A Captain came over and kicked him in the leg and growled , “Are YOU dead? If not let’s go”. He took one look back at the medics working on McConnell, and then went over the wall. Then blackness hit him.
Tarawa was his first and last battle. His wound, while not life threatening, ended his combat career, and like many wounded warriors of that terrible war, he returned home. Eventually his life evolved into a type of normalcy. He married Mary Alice and took a job as a machinist in a factory. Each day though, he wondered why he had lived when so many of his buddies had died. It seemed to him like such a waste. He had miraculously dodged the hail of Jap bullets and artillery for about 700 yards after jumping from the landing craft. He had seen three of his friends blown to smithereens while seeing another friend, McConnell, in very bad shape, and he had managed to get hit going over the seawall. He figured he hadn’t taken more than five steps before getting hit—he hadn’t even fired his rifle.
Mary Alice was a good wife and like many wives of her generation, she spent many hours putting the pieces back into a man when nightmares shook pieces out him. She loved him and understood that here was a man worth loving. She saw in him the good while others seemed to see only his cantankerous personality; especially his son. Like many of his peers who saw combat he rarely spoke about his experiences and he held to the adage that it was difficult to speak about the war to those who had never experienced it.
The exasperated voice on the handset brought him back. “Dad, Dad. Are you there?”
“Okay. Okay. Let’s not argue. I’ll go with you to the fireworks, but you know I really don’t know Dani, so it may be a little awkward trying to get to “know her” as you call it.”
“Agreed dad. We’ll pick you up ‘bout seven. Fireworks start at nine, okay?” The voice in the handset sounded a little brighter as if it had just won a small victory.
He responded with something he felt certain was standard but insincere grandfather speak. “Okay. And—uh—tell Dani I look forward to seeing her. Bye.”
As he hung up the telephone, he picked up the framed picture of Mary Alice propped alongside the phone on the bedside table. He looked deep into that picture. It was an old black and white of her, taken before they were married; she had met him in Hawaii when he was convalescing. Those were the best days of their time together. She had a perpetual smile and impish eyes. He loved that about her but he mostly remembered her comfort during the times his nightmares threatened to swallow him. She was the lifeline he could always cling to. Now she was gone and he re-felt the inexorable pull of his demons wanting to drag him into a dark abyss.“Where are you when I need you?”
The doorbell rang not once or twice but five times in a row.
“Alright, alright”, he shouted and shuffled as quickly as any 72 year old man can to open the door. When he opened the door, he looked down and saw a sprite dark-haired ten-year old girl. Standing behind her was his son and his wife. Ignoring his son and wife, he looked down again at the girl and stared at her intently.
Dani was unperturbed and looked right straight back at him, “Hi Grandpa. You know it’s not polite to stare.”
“Well I’ll be damned”, his mind noting a certain similarity in the girl.“She has Mary Alice’s eyes and smile and damn if she doesn’t have her attitude too.”
Somewhat stiffly and carefully his son said, “Hi dad. It’s good to see you and we’re ready to go if you’re ready.”
“Hi pop I made some of those chicken salad sandwiches mom used to make that you like so much, we can eat them at the park”, Marcia, his son’s dutiful wife chirped in acutely alert and ever ready to make sure things stayed peaceful.
“Okay. I’m ready. Let me get my hat. It’s upstairs. I’ll be back in a jiff.”
“Hurry up Grandpa. Dad always says you’re slow”, Dani said, in the innocent way children often broadcast what they’ve previously heard from their parents.
After climbing the stairs, he went into the bedroom closet and searched for and found a battered and greasy red baseball style cap and put it on, but before he went back downstairs he picked up Mary Alice’s picture one last time, stared intently at it again, “Yep. There’s some of Mary Alice in that girl.”
His son’s stiffness quickly dissipated into cautious exasperation. “Dad are you gonna wear that old hat again? You’ve had that for ages. C’mon it looks like you’ve dragged it across a greasy floor and stepped on it a couple of times. We can get you a new one at the park. There are lots of vendors selling stuff....”
He turned hotly on his son, “No! Stop it. Your mom got me this hat. You know that and I don’t care if you like it or not. That’s none of your business. This hat goes with me or forget about the fireworks.”
“I see what you mean Dad, he IS cranky.” Dani very diplomatically took his hand as if he were a very important person and gently pulled him through the doorway, “C’mon Grandpa your hat is okay. It’s red. I like red.”
The drive over to Monroe Park was nerve racking. He was not used to sitting in the back seat of a car much less sitting in the back seat with a ten year old who couldn’t seem to sit still. But that wasn’t what was bothering him the most. It was the thought of the fireworks. One of the blessings of not seeing his son a lot was that for many years he did not have to go to Monroe Park on the fourth. He would watch the Boston Pops in the quiet safety of his house, and when the fireworks came on, he would simply turn off the TV.
There were so many people at the park. “Since when did so many people come to see fireworks?”, he wondered as he munched on a chicken salad sandwich. The chicken salad was okay, but it wasn’t like Mary Alice’s; her chicken salad was heaven sent.
As nine approached, he noticed that his palms were starting to get a little damp from sweat and he could feel the beginnings of a slight trembling deep within his core. After a few minutes the trembling migrated to his shoulders. He couldn’t keep them from shaking and he also felt cold despite the hot and humid night.
He shut his eyes tight and murmured a deep and desperate plea,“Mary Alice I’m not sure I can do this. It’s been so long. Please help me.”
Dani was pulling on his hands. “Hey Grandpa can you take me to get some cotton candy before the fireworks start?”
He snapped back from the brink of panic and gathered himself for a few seconds to calm himself down. “Let’s go,” he said, grateful for the chance to get up a move about.
He took her by the hand and began to lead away towards the cotton candy vendor.
“Hey grandpa I like you, but I’m ten years old and not a baby. You don’t have to hold my han....Why is your hand shaking?”
He quickly let go of her hand and looked straight ahead fearing she might see his uneasiness, “We’re lucky there is no line for cotton candy”, he said, forcing his words through a very dry mouth.
“That’s because the fireworks are almost ready to start, so we need to hurry”, she said, pleased with her effort to show her grandpa she had good observational skills. She was a ten year old going on fourteen.
As they approached the stand, the man working the booth smiled at both of them and greeted his two customers in the characteristic loud voice of a person who thoroughly enjoys his job. “Hello sir, happy fourth, you’re a veteran!”
“I said, happy fourth. You’re a veteran. I can tell by your hat.”
Dani, eager to be part of the conversation, chimed in, “My dad doesn’t like his hat. He says my Grandpa’s hat is dirty, but it’s red. I like red.”
“Yes, that it is. It says you’re a Tarawa veteran. World War Two?”
“Uh— yea. I am. I was there.” He felt as if had marbles in his mouth and mumbling like an idiot. He weakly pointed at the array of cotton candy bags behind the vendor. “We need one of those blue cotton candy for the girl.”
The vendor pulled down a bag of blue cotton candy from the shelf. The immediate impression he had of this young man was that of a chatterbox. He was the type to hold you up with idle conversation before giving you the goods. “You know I had an uncle that fought there, on Tarawa. I used to call it Tara because I thought it was the same place like in the movie, you know, Gone with the Wind, but that was when I was littler and didn’t know better. Maybe you knew my Uncle. He said it was a small place of hell.”
“Yes, yes, look the fireworks are gonna start and we just need to get a blue cotton candy.”
“Okay sir, I’m sorry about talking about that. My uncle didn’t seem to like talking about it either. He was glad he made it. Some guy pulled him from the water and did first aid on him through the night, or something like that.”
For a fleeting instant, all his senses buzzed alive and he became alert. “What?”
“I said he was hurt bad but he made it. Somebody saved him.” The response was made in a tone that sounded as if the story had been told a thousand times but had never generated any real response or interest from anyone.
“What’s your Uncle’s name?”
No one had ever asked the vendor about his Uncle. Puzzled, he replied, “McConnell, Jim McConnell”
“He lived? Jim lived? I mean McConnell lived???” He knew he now sounded like some delusional freak to the vendor. But now nothing else mattered, his focus on that young man was sharp. It was as if time stopped and the whole world tuned out.
“Yes sir, that’s his name, Jim McConnell. He said he barely made it. He always said he would’ve died if someone hadn’t pulled him out of the water and saved him. He always said he wanted to find and thank the person who saved him, but he really couldn’t remember who it was.” The vendor’s tone was changing to a rising level of excitement.
Tears were streaming down his face. Jim was alive! He had made it! All these years of thinking he had wasted his time on that miserable beach, thinking of how he had not contributed, not made any damn difference to the Marines, to his country, to anyone. Jim had made it.
“Where is McConnell. I mean your Uncle. Where is he?” Hope was rising in him.
“Oh, he passed away three years ago. Cancer. You knew him sir?” The tone now was hopeful, yearning for a connection to be made.
“Yes I did, I knew Jim. Great friend. I’ve missed him and others”, he said blinking back the tears. “War is hell. It isn’t just a cliché son,” he said softly, as if in the span of a few milliseconds he remembered all the goodness of times with his friends and the blackness of their loss.
“Yes sir, I believe you.” The vendor still had his broad smile, but now he stood a little more erect, a little bit more proud. “My Uncle kinda said the same thing too. But, he had a great life. Lots of family came from him. I guess I oughta thank you for knowing him, because he always said he was shaped by the people he fought with, you know— the Marines.”
“Well here’s your cotton candy Miss. It’s on the house.”
Danie took the bag. “What does on the house mean Grandpa?”, sounding like the ten year old she really was.
“Well Miss, it means it free, because your grandpa here is a hero. He’s a hero of Tara…. I mean Tarawa. Sorry sir.” Then the vendor took one-step back and executed the most unskilled yet the most heartfelt salute towards the man in the red hat.
The fireworks began at nine on the dot. As he settled into the lawn chair, bravely anticipating the fear, Dani climbed up on his lap. She turned slightly, and looked up at him, and whispered in his ear, “you’re safe Grandpa. It’s gonna be alright. You’re a hero.”
He looked up and saw the first starbursts of red and orange and some a blinding white. He could hear and feel the report of the fireworks like small thuds against his frail war torn body, yet he was calm. Out of the corner of his eye he sensed something but wasn’t sure what it was. He smiled and whispered to himself, “Mary Alice is that you?”
For a moment, he stared out of the corner of his eye as if looking for something far away in the distance. He then turned his gaze upward to marvel at the dazzling display. His hands no longer trembled—he was at peace.